WE could not help musing at times, as the ordeal of Nicholas Daniloff appeared to be nearing a conclusion, that comedian Woody Allen had put one over on us in Moscow. The predicament was so absurd -- a United States journalist grabbed by the Soviet police to set up a swap for an apprehended Soviet agent in New York, putting at risk a superpower summit, arms talks, and the political reputations of the Soviet chairman and American President -- that it had to have been devised by fiction writers. Alas. The cruelty of a government using human beings as pawns in its struggle for power is neither cinematic fiction nor a laughing matter.
Fortunately, in this case, the governments involved awoke to the dangerous escalation of tensions, found a way to conclude the confrontation, and are moving ahead to the really serious matters of East and West leadership.
Call it a swap, trade, wink, blink, or nod, Mr. Daniloff is out of the Soviet Union, untried on espionage charges. The alleged Soviet spy, Gennady Zakharov, after pleading no contest in a US court appearance, is returning to Moscow. Further, the Soviets will be allowed to choose among their own personnel who must exit under US demands to cut back the size of the Soviet UN delegation. And Yuri Orlov, a Soviet physicist and human-rights activist, and his wife will be allowed to leave the Soviet Union.
Of great significance, President Reagan has accepted what he says was Mikhail Gorbachev's suggestion that the two meet in Iceland, in the mid-Atlantic, Oct. 11 and 12. Mr. Reagan says the meeting will not be a ``summit,'' because it had been agreed that the next summit would be held in Washington, after the US elections.
In a world where a trade is not a trade, it may follow that a summit is not a summit. Whatever it is called, agreeing to meet in the mid-Atlantic before the US elections restores momentum to the US-Soviet arms talks and to the management of disagreements that had been interrupted first by the US attack on Libya, then the seizures of Mr. Zakharov and Daniloff. If all goes well enough between the two leaders, the meeting could greatly benefit GOP election prospects. At the same time, the closeness of elections cannot help putting negotiating pressures on President Reagan.
The Soviet KGB police come out of the Daniloff affair having successfully rescued one of its people. Some argue it may also be that the KGB had grabbed the journalist to frustrate Mr. Gorbachev's prospects of a summit success with Reagan. On the American side, it is also suggested that the original seizure of Zakharov had been allowed to frustrate the President's peace initiatives.
Fortunately, instead of a deepening diplomatic disaster, the Daniloff affair has been made a catalyst for improved relations. Credit should go to negotiators George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze, and those who backed them up, for finding a way to break the ice jam and to get superpower negotiations back in flow.
For the Soviets to agree to a pre-election meeting in Iceland is a recognition, in the Kremlin, of President Reagan's political power. Though they would deny it, the Soviets are tacitly helping Reagan's prospects of keeping a Republican-led Senate. This becomes a major Soviet investment in the President. It enhances Reagan's ability to come to a summit more assured of two more years of backing by a branch of Congress, improving his chances of getting Senate approval of any agreement. Reagan can go to the public in the next few weeks saying he needs a Senate on his side to ensure a strong hand in dealing with the Soviets. Further, two more years of GOP Senate control would prevent a Democratic White House bid from being launched from the Senate. This helps the ambitions of the Republican Party's centrist wing -- the George Bush wing.
Gorbachev's proposal for the Iceland meeting indicates the Soviets have come to the conclusion that they can do serious business with Ronald Reagan after all.
Suddenly the Daniloff business is in the past, and more important matters have come to the fore.